How to Feel Happy at Work – Find Your Purpose

Happy, Work, Purpose, Values, Danielle Collins

Years ago, before I knew myself better, I accepted a promotion that I didn’t really want, but I sure liked the title.

And salary.

Never mind that I’d have to manage fundraisers who previously had been my co-workers.  Never mind that I’d have less time to do what I most loved in my job – cultivating my donors, and writing.  Never mind that the burden of overwork would drain my energy and dramatically reduce my free time.

I set aside all these niggling, troublesome thoughts, and instead listened to other voices in my head.

“You should always accept a promotion, no matter what.”

“You should go for the highest paying job.”

“You should be willing to give up your free time, because that’s the only path to success.”

These voices were loud, and they reminded me of things my family had said or modeled.  I let them crowd out the quieter thoughts – thoughts that would have served me better.

You won’t be surprised to learn that two weeks into my new job as a director, I was miserable.  After a development committee meeting one evening, I sat in my newly painted office and cried.  I knew I’d made a mistake, and I was already tired from the overtime.  I felt frazzled and spent, rather than productive and creative.

I realized I’d listened to outside voices, and not to the grumblings of my own intuition.  Although I was distressed, I had clarity that I would never again ignore my own heart.

It’s critical that each of us identifies our most important values.  We, and our co-workers, will feel immense satisfaction and perhaps even joy, when we align our choices with our internal guideposts.

Understanding Our Purpose

According to Emiliana Simon-Thomas at the Greater Good Science Center, one of the keys to feeling happy at work is understanding our purpose.  When we have a job that reflects our values, and when we understand how our work makes a difference, we’re more likely to feel satisfied and fulfilled.

This sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Yet it’s not easy.  For years, I tried to understand my own choices and behavior.  What led me to ignore my internal voice, to my own detriment?  How can we feel good at work?  How can we help ourselves and our employees experience wellbeing and fulfillment in our nonprofit careers?

In search of answers, I eventually returned to school to become a professional coach.  I wanted to help nonprofit employees who are burning out to renew their passion.  (Click here if you’re feeling overwhelmed and fatigued.)  While completing my first coach-training program, Senka Holzer presented her scientific study on her values-coaching technique.  Decades of weight lifted from my shoulders!

Senka hypothesized that not only are people unaware they’re born with some values, but they also don’t understand they acquire values along the way.  When she began to study people’s value systems, she observed we have two completely different sets of values.

I recently had an opportunity to talk with Senka about finding our purpose.  Keep reading to learn how our values impact our happiness at work, as well as an important bonus tip.

Our Values and Our Work – An Interview with Senka Holzer

Danielle:  Understanding our purpose is a huge part of feeling happy at work.  Knowing our purpose requires us to understand our values.  Why is this so darn difficult?

Senka:  It’s challenging because we hold two completely different sets of values.  Core values are our intrinsic guiding principles.  I like to say they’re part of our “psychological DNA.”  When our thoughts and actions align with our core values, we’re at our best.  We feel energized and alive.

Unfortunately, it’s challenging to identify our values.  And the process becomes even murkier when you consider that we acquire values along the way from outside sources, like our family, social media, culture, and generation.  We may be living each day, attempting to align ourselves with values that aren’t even our own.

Danielle:  I’ve never done that, myself.  [eye-roll]

Senka:  Sure.  Of course you haven’t.  But if by chance you made decisions in the past – like maybe you accepted a promotion that you didn’t really want because you desired the title and the money – then maybe you paid more attention to the outside voices telling you that “appearance” or “status” or “achievement” were more important than your own core values that will ultimately fulfill you.

Danielle:  I know now that some of my core values are “creativity,” “authenticity,” and “adventure.”  It sure was tough to sort through all the voices and hear myself.

Senka:  Exactly.  It’s tough for all of us.  Our core and acquired values greatly affect our thoughts, emotions, and ultimately our decisions.  Unless we consciously evaluate and choose which values to respond to, we tend to favor our acquired values.

Danielle:  And then we’re swimming and sinking in a river of demands.  We react to what seems most pressing, or what offers the quickest gratification.

Senka:  Here’s the rub. . . when we follow the outside voices and pursue our acquired values, we experience only short spikes of satisfaction.  Why?  Because acquired values don’t reflect what innately matters most to us.  People who invest heavily in their acquired values (while ignoring their core values) often find themselves hungry for purpose and genuine fulfillment.

Sometimes our acquired values serve us, but sometimes they don’t.  The key is to understand when we’re stuck because outside voices are holding us back.

Danielle:  You use a music metaphor which I find helpful. . .

Senka:  Yes, my clients love this metaphor.  When we align ourselves with our core values, it’s like playing our favorite music.  We feel inspired!  Exhilarated!  We model for other people how amazing it is to be authentic.  We give them permission to play their own music, too.

When we make decisions based on our acquired values, however, it’s like playing music, but it’s for other people.  We may not even like the music, but we play it anyway.  Other people don’t get to know the “real” us, and so they don’t connect in a genuine way.

Danielle:  Your scientific study won the First Place Research Award at a Harvard Medical School conference.  Which results were most exciting?

Senka:  Our research showed that the more we focus on our core values, the more we’ll feel motivated in our jobs.  We also enjoy greater wellbeing and satisfaction with life.  Our research also showed that this particular coaching technique helps clients to prioritize their core, rather than acquired, values.  The positive impact may persist even after the coaching sessions ended!

The opposite is also true, of course.  The more we focus on our acquired values in our daily lives, the less motivated we feel in our jobs.  We experience a negative impact on our wellbeing.

Danielle:  What happens when our core values match (or don’t match) the values of our workplace?

Senka:  When our values match the values of our organization, then everything is great.  It’s possible our values don’t match, though.

Danielle:  Like if you value independence, and your work environment demands teamwork?

Senka:  Exactly.  The fit between ourselves and our work isn’t perfect, and that’s totally normal.  If there’s a big discrepancy between the two, however, then we need to be careful.

Research shows that people can’t remain long in surroundings where our values are greatly conflicting.  When the value doesn’t fit, change must happen.

We can help the organization to change, but more likely, we’ll change ourselves by trying to acquire the value of the organization. Then, we’re playing music we don’t necessarily like, because our environment demands it.  Over time, this diminishes our wellbeing.

Danielle:  Thank you, Senka.  I’m so inspired by your work.

Super-Cool Bonus Tip

If you want to understand which values are at play when you’re making a decision at work, check in with your body.  If you feel light or expansive, you’re probably in touch with a core value.  Also, your voice will sound brighter and more animated.

If you’re feeling heavy or tense, it’s likely you’re encountering an acquired value.  You may hunch over, feeling the psychological weight.  Your voice may sound flat and quiet, and you might say, “I should. . .” a lot.

Remember that your goal is not to push for big, dramatic change.  Instead, you want to make small, daily decisions that are aligned with your core values.  Over time, the positive effects will accumulate and you’ll see your life has transformed.

We can do it!

Danielle Collins, Coaching

P.S.  For more information on Senka Holzer and her values-based coaching program, check out Values2Wellbeing.

P.P.S.  If you’re feeling stuck from the force of outside voices, I can help you as a coach.  Click here for information on the Core Values Deep Dive.

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